Unsustainable fuelwood extraction from South African savannas

K. J. Wessels, M. S. Colgan, B. F.N. Erasmus, G. P. Asner, W. C. Twine, R. Mathieu, J. A.N. Van Aardt, J. T. Fisher, I. P.J. Smit

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Wood and charcoal supply the majority of sub-Saharan Africa's rural energy needs. The long-term supply of fuelwood is in jeopardy given high consumption rates. Using airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR), we mapped and investigated savanna aboveground biomass across contrasting land uses, ranging from densely populated communal areas to highly protected areas in the Lowveld savannas of South Africa. We combined the LiDAR observations with socio-economic data, biomass production rates and fuelwood consumption rates in a supply-demand model to predict future fuelwood availability. LiDAR-based biomass maps revealed disturbance gradients around settlements up to 1.5 km, corresponding to the maximum distance walked to collect fuelwood. At current levels of fuelwood consumption (67% of households use fuelwood exclusively, with a 2% annual reduction), we calculate that biomass in the study area will be exhausted within thirteen years. We also show that it will require a 15% annual reduction in consumption for eight years to a level of 20% of households using fuelwood before the reduction in biomass appears to stabilize to sustainable levels. The severity of dwindling fuelwood reserves in African savannas underscores the importance of providing affordable energy for rural economic development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number014007
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • LiDAR
  • biomass
  • communal land
  • fuelwood
  • savannas
  • supplydemand

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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